This year, courtesy of my two dearest friends, I received the absolute best birthday presents a man could ever hope for – to wit: an Ursula birthday cake flavoured like a giant Jaffa Cake, and the closest (or at least most legal way) I will ever come to owning a red panda.

I begrudgingly cut her when the children in attendance started getting antsy.

Shortly after Colin and Kim adopted the red penda for me, the Highland Wildlife Park held an event that allowed adopters and friends to attend the park after the regular opening hours and spend time with the animals. By even happier coincidence, our routes from Dundee and Glasgow required all three of us to stop over in Perth, and so we were able to make the remaining three quarters of the journey together.

Having made a rather generous allowance for the time it would take us to travel up into the highlands, we double-backed to the nearby town of Kingussie to grab something to eat. Their Wicker Man-esque hospitality left rather a lot to be desired, and we soon began to understand why all of their independent businesses were permanently closing up shop.

For just £60, you, too, can own such beloved characters as Geordy and Wolf.

WOLF.

Inside the park: Japanese Macaques!

By curious coincidence, I was with Colin and Kim the last time I saw these guys, too, albeit in their natural habitat on the other side of the world.

I love this guy. He looks like the Ghibli logo.

Kim getting up close and personal with the wildlife.

And then: disaster struck.

As luck would have it, the red pandas had given birth the very night before and were literally the only animals closed off to the public. My heart may have died a tiny bit inside.

But then, as if by fate…

…the youngest panda, Kush, climbed the tree tops above his pen to say hello! They’ve been my favourite animals for decades and I can now officially say that I’ve seen one in real life. LOOK AT HIS FACE. LOOK AT IT.

Colin also convinced one of the trainers to go inside their area on our behalf to take a photo of the adopters plaque, which now has my name on it!

Speaking of firsts, this was also my inaugural trip into the Highlands! Somehow I’ve managed to travel to four separate continents without ever having made it farther north in Scotland than Aberdeen.

The angriest/jolliest owl.

From a distance of about 50 metres, Colin spotted a little girl sitting between these two bears and was momentarily panicked for her safety. Because they’re so lifelike.

I mean look at that photo-realistic craftsmanship.

This one, on the other hand, looks fake as all hell.

Goat King. King of the Goats.

Markhor-ficent.

When they say to look carefully for the Pallas Cats because they blend well, they are not kidding.

It took fully 20 minutes of scanning their habitat before Kim spotted that the one fluffy rock on the upper right of the cliff was, in fact, alive.

Where’s Wally’s got nothing on this cat.

She wasn’t particularly amused at being rumbled and quickly skulked off to further camouflage.

One final trip round the car-only portion of the park.

This reindeer was quite determined to play chicken with us.

We couldn’t tell if these were regular occupants or if they’d just flown in for the day.

And what better way to finish than with this horse rocking a glorious Tina Turner weave.

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